Basketball star banned for stand against the anthem

RUPERT CORNWELL

Washington

Forget Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls' drive to become the first NBA team to win 70 games in a season. Forget Frank Bruno's battle this weekend against Mike Tyson. Forget even the delicious rite of baseball spring training now unfolding in Florida and Arizona. One topic alone consumes America's sportswriters: the basketball star who wouldn't stand for the national anthem.

It is one of the country's more curious rituals, dating back to Second World War baseball games - the audience rising en masse and players stopping motionless before the start of any professional sports event to hear "The Star Spangled Banner". No matter that the anthem, more often than not, is rendered in excruciating awfulness, tradition must be respected - even, it turns out, by Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, guard and leading scorer of the NBA's Denver Nuggets.

For months now, Abdul-Rauf, born 27 years ago as Chris Jackson in the former slave state of Mississippi, has refused to stand for the anthem. At first, the team tried to work out the problem quietly with their $2.5m- a-year star. But then the Denver press noticed, and finally the NBA itself.

At first, he continued to refuse to stand, declaring the US flag was "a symbol of oppression and tyranny", but this week the basketball league suspended him, indefinitely and without pay. The player's agent threatened to countersue, arguing the rule breached First Amendment free speech rights.

Abdul-Rauf converted to Islam in 1991. "You can't be for God and oppression . . ." he said. "Islam is the only way. I don't criticise those who stand, so don't criticise me for sitting."

Last night, however, compromise seemed close. Having missed one game (at a cost of $32,000), the player said that henceforth he would stand but pray at the same time - averting a potential legal battle charged with racial and religious undertones, but not perhaps overdue questioning of the anthem's place in the sports arena.

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